NORTH Koreans danced in the streets of their capital yesterday to celebrate the launch of the Communist nation’s first satellite into space.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations’ Security Council in New York, the launch was condemned as a violation of a 2009 ban on the pariah state carrying out “any launch using ballistic missile technology”.
The launch of a three-stage rocket – similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as America’s west coast – raises the stakes in the international stand-off over North Korea’s expanding atomic arsenal.
As Pyongyang refines its technology, its next step may be conducting its third nuclear test, experts warned.
The UN Security Council, which has punished North Korea repeatedly for developing its nuclear programme, condemned the launch after a closed-door meeting and said it would urgently consider “an appropriate response”.
The White House called the launch a “highly provocative act that threatens regional security,” and even the North’s main ally, China, expressed regret.
In Pyongyang, however, pride over the scientific advancement outweighed the fear of greater international isolation and punishment in an economically fragile nation.
“It’s really good news,” North Korean citizen Jon Il-gwang said as he and scores of other Pyongyang residents poured into the streets after a noon announcement to celebrate the launch by dancing in the snow. “It clearly testifies that our country has the capability to enter into space.”
Yesterday’s launch was North Korea’s fourth bid since 1998. An April launch failed in the first of three stages.
The rocket, named Unha, the Korean word for “galaxy,” b ed off from the Sohae launch-pad in Tongchang-ri, north-west of Pyongyang, shortly before 10am local time.
A South Korean destroyer patrolling the waters west of the Korean Peninsula immediately detected the launch. Japanese officials said the first rocket stage fell into the Yellow Sea and a second stage fell into the Philippine Sea hundreds of miles further south.
The North American Aerospace Defence Command said “initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit”.
In an indication that North Korea’s leadership was worried about the success of the launch, the plan was kept quiet inside the country until a special noon broadcast on state TV.
At one hotel bar yesterday, North Koreans applauded at the close of the brief broadcast. As vans mounted with loudspeakers drove around the capital announcing the news, people in parkas ran outside to celebrate.
North Korean space officials say the rocket is meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns but the US, Japan, European Union and South Korea all say the launch is aimed at perfecting a nuclear-capable launch vehicle.
Pyongyang is thought to have some basic nuclear bombs. However, most experts believe it lacks the ability to make a warhead small enough to mount on a missile that could threaten the wider world.